On Criticizing Your Own Side Without Being A Traitor

On Criticizing Your Own Side Without Being A Traitor September 16, 2014

My intention in my post from yesterday was decidedly not to write Sam Harris off as a sexist and a terrible person. I couldn’t think of any more desirable outcome of the current controversy than that Harris internalize the criticisms I laid out and come out of this a better spokesperson for all atheists (including atheist women) and a better moral philosopher. Or, of course, refute me if I’m actually wrong.

And it was in that spirit that yesterday I tried to get across what I thought his remarks quoted in The Washington Post got wrong. I tried to charitably construe what he meant to say. But then I also went to great pains to explain what he actually said that was harmful and what he actually seemed to reveal about his blind spots. I did this not because I think he’s a terrible person or a sexist. I did this because (1) his words have these effects independent of his intentions and those effects need to be stopped as much as his intentions need to be clarified, and (2) defenses of his words by others that dismissed the problems with them as an utter non-issue revealed to me that there wasn’t adequate perceptiveness out there of what was false and harmful about them in their surface meanings.

A central focus of Sam Harris’s own life’s work is to argue that words can express and keep alive harmful ideas even when the people who use them insist that of course they don’t really mean what they look like they mean. Sam goes so far as to hold explicitly moderate religious people accountable for how their rationalizations of ugly words keep those ugly words in circulation as authoritative and reinforce their power to inspire extremists with their authority. Sam Harris’s literal words were harmful. They literally perpetuate memes that in other people’s hands besides Sam’s do serious damage. They literally were a likely instance (intended or not) of stereotype threat. It’s fair to analyze how words mean things beyond intentions and to say that Sam would do better to realize the implicit errors he was making. It’s fair to say this isn’t just dismissable as “political correctness”, the lie about women not being as into various rational activities (in this case “criticizing very bad ideas”) is empirically demontrated to be hurtful whether Sam meant it that way or not. And it’s a great chance for Sam to internalize this and say to his readers, “whatever my intentions, I see the problem with falling into language that echoed old tropes that have been empirically shown to disempower women”. A statement like that would be a powerful influence in the atheist community.

The response to my post, as far as I can tell, has been very positive. But a few people have suggested that the feminist social media response to Harris (which I saw very little of and wasn’t much influenced by) was so awful that I should have criticized that more than Harris. And by criticizing the unintended implications of Harris’s words I have been just contributing to some terrible mistreatment of Harris or participating in “call out culture”.

For the record, over and over again I avoid making particular philosophical and moral issues about any given one person’s mistake. I think it’s a mistake to tie it all to one person as though they’re the problem and not a general wrong mindset or practice. So I don’t call out specific people with any regularity. I see it just polarizing people. Half are viciously indifferent to whether they completely mischaracterize someone by defining them by their one infelicity to the expense of all their other goodness and complexity as a person. And this pushes the other half to want to help the person they see getting disproportionately punished for the sins of the entire world. This can lead them to stop caring about the wrong thing said and get much more agitated about the overemphasis on this one poor sop who made a mistake. So, I see very little good by way of rationally advancing the issues by personalizing them. And so I rarely do. I write in generalities because the general issues are the issue, not the terribleness of this person who for one mistake is now the embodiment of the entire problem.

Now, Sam Harris is massively influential in our community. It is important that statements from his perch taken to be representative of our community have some public discourse around them if anyone’s to know what we really think. And it’s valuable while people are paying attention to the comment to try to influence how they perceive it. So, I tried to explain, without casting aspersions on this person’s reputation what he meant to say and then what his words as stated had the very likely potential effect of saying and what was so wrong with that. That was my two cents on the issue.

It wasn’t an endorsement of uncivil discourse he may have received from others. When do I support uncivil discourse from anyone? From atheists or feminists? I’m sorry, but anyone who knows the history of this blog knows that despite my writing numerous staunchly feminist and atheist blog posts, there’s a sizable contingent of feminist atheists who seriously don’t like me because I have been insistent that everyone in social media engage civilly as much as possible, as an ethical matter, feminists included. As someone deeply committed to women’s true social equality, it was excruciating for me to be raked over the coals by people whose goals I passionately support. But over and over again I went on the record defending civil standards even for “my side”. I do this with atheists and I do this with feminists. I stuck my neck on the chopping block with a civility pledge and everything. (And I’ll note, those demanding I call out uncivil feminists? They refused to sign it too!)

But here’s what I don’t do. I don’t decide that just because my side has some intemperate voices, that the ideas on my side don’t deserve vigorous defense from me.

Take atheism. Over and over we are inundated with messages from atheists that just because some atheists are meanspirited judgmental bullies who call religious people stupid and mentally ill that all atheists should simply stop criticizing religious beliefs. Supposedly outspoken atheists who like to argue about religion are a terrible mixture of snobby academics pissing on the religions of the hoi polloi from their perch of privilege and belligerent, dunderhead know-it-all literalists who underestimate the richness of sophisticated theology and diversity of real life religious practice. And supposedly most charges (rather than a minority) that the outspoken atheists are mean and terrible are legitimate. It doesn’t matter that even the most civil atheists have their expressions of dissent to religious opinions falsely accused of being angry. It doesn’t matter that substantive, fair-game intellectual and moral challenges are conflated with bigotry in principle, simply for being aimed at religion from atheists. Atheists aren’t victims of religious privilege. Nope, they’re people who should shut up and play along with religious people’s errors even more politely than most atheists already do.

So, what do I do in this circumstance? I’m not going to acquiesce to unwarranted religious authority in matters of belief and practice simply because a relative few but nonetheless noticeable atheists behave terribly. I’m going to do two things. I’m going to denounce abusive treatment of people, whether by atheists or others, and I’m going to write my own atheist articles that advance atheism the way I think it should be done. Because the existence of a few spoiled apples in the atheist movement in no way invalidates the legitimacy of our intellectual, moral, and political causes. I am just as passionate about them. And I’m also not going to throw all my fellow atheists under the bus by buying into the meme that they’re especially worse than the religious when they’re not. Their thinking is usually better. Their values are usually better. And I can point you to countless civil and fair atheists. The numbers writing fair intellectual arguments against religion compared to those frothing bigotry disproportionately favor the fair intellectual ones. The cause of promoting intellectual, moral, spiritual, and political autonomy by countering faith-based obstacles to it is one I am passionate about.

And I won’t abandon the average atheist because they don’t always have the kind of felicity with words and technical concepts related to the philosophical issues of arguing about religion that it has taken me eighteen years of continuous academic study of philosophy to acquire. To me, when I hear academics and journalists piss on the supposedly terrible crudity of populist atheists and call them “just as bad as the fundamentalists” that’s where I hear elitism. When I read articles that compare the most sophisticated theologian possible to some populist rhetoric and make the verdict that atheism is supposedly taken down a peg by this, I get furious. Faith-based religions have on their side absolutely massive, worldwide operations for spreading misinformation and manipulating people into unjustifiable beliefs and practices and allegiances. The populism of faith-based religion is so gross, so disrespectful to the intelligence and autonomy of ordinary people, and so pervasive as to be outright staggering.

And meanwhile, there’s not a field of academic inquiry that doesn’t pile up numerous reasons for doubt and disbelief in what those religions are pushing on the populace through every dishonest social and emotional lever of influence they can figure out. The case for atheism is so intellectually solid, the secularizing effect of academic study is so strong, and the opinion of qualified philosophers is so lopsided against theism on philosophical issue after philosophical issue, that it is simply outrageous to me that people would misrepresent this situation as “atheism is just a bunch of ignorant know-nothing populism whereas theology is deep stuff that True Thinkers all appreciate”.

It’s outrageous to me that so many academics whose work could be aggressively put to work disabusing the populace of errors they’re systematically ingrained with—errors that could be debunked by a fair application of the findings of numerous fields to faith-based claims propounded as absolute truths week after week in churches—simply don’t write the popular level books helping people in faith see how they’re mistaken.

There are some academics who care to do this. Some who care to apply their work to the public and directly help the ordinary person see the ways their faith-based beliefs are actually probably false. But many academics don’t care to do this and evince a lack of concern with ordinary people’s autonomy. They let manipulative institutions who use techniques easily debunked as irrational by even a cursory look at psychology, philosophy, anthropology, history, biology, etc., be massive influences on ordinary people’s understandings of themselves, the world, metaphysics, and morality itself. If those scholars are put off by the imprecisions of the work of those who write popular books then they should write their own more precise criticisms of religious ideas and practices from what they know from their own fields. Just disparaging populist endeavors entirely without caring about the cause of public education against pervasive miseducation is not enough.

Now, as someone whose job simply is to be steeped in philosophy, of course I see that this or that atheist way of arguing is suboptimal or technically wouldn’t pass scholarly peer review. I can see just fine how a meme or a rhetorical point is an oversimplification most of the time. But, personally, I think I’d be the arrogant elitist if all I did was nitpick these things rather than offer constructive models for how to do it more precisely. And I’d be astoundingly hypocritical if I nitpicked atheist mistakes without going after faith-based mistakes that are demonstrably several magnitudes worse and more frequent. I would be a lousy educator, more interested in picking on people for the “failing” of doing something else for a living than I do and so not being as good at it. I would rather focus on how my fellow atheists are basically right and further empower them by modeling my versions of the arguments.

It’s unfair to ordinary people to demand that atheism always be expressed only by the most technical of specialists while so many hacks think standing behind a pulpit gives them authority to speak for God about biology, morality, depression, sexuality, and any other thing they want, in ways that flout actual learning. I find this situation appalling when atheists are held to a standard where all our writings must be so academic and so precise that we might just risk never having any popular dent no matter how right we actually are. That’s unfair.

So, if an atheist is going to criticize common atheists’ errors, I say, great, but be primarily educative about it. Don’t condescend to people just for being ignorant. Don’t use the tendency for incivility (which exists across the board, in every single group) as a basis for dismissing the people who are basically right. Don’t decide that because other people are technically imprecise or uncivil that you shouldn’t write your own versions of what you actually think so that in the discourse it’s said right. I don’t mind an atheist who doesn’t like other atheists’ writings. I mind an atheist who disproportionately and misleadingly emphasizes the vices of those he basically agrees with while disproportionately and misleadingly emphasizes the virtues of those he thinks are actually wrong.

So, this is how I deal with atheism. I argue hard against incivility. I try to model the best arguments I can. I support the average atheist because I understand that the average atheist is not some elitist know-it-all but quite the opposite. The average atheist is a minority in a religiously hegemonic world. The average atheist’s “literalism” is their desire to call a spade a spade in a world where they see deception everywhere. They’re not clueless. They don’t know nothing about non-literal religion. They’re not just one more liberal interpretation of faith away from thinking the whole thing is hunky dory. They’re people who suffer familial and other forms of social coercion to put other people’s false beliefs over their own, usually much more rationally scrupulously and sometimes even painfully derived, true beliefs.

These are people who regularly come under pressure to say the emperor’s clothes are gorgeous and are maligned as hateful people simply for saying, “no, he’s fucking naked!!” when he is indeed naked. Atheists are ostracized and demonized and their truth telling is conflated with hatred. And they are, emphatically, not just a bunch of spoiled rich white straight guys living in comfortable liberal enclaves of godlessness. They come in every color, every socioeconomic demographic, every gender and sexuality, every nationality, etc. They are often surrounded by religious people.

Finally, far from being too ignorant of religion to criticize it well, they often know religion extremely well. They are apostates who both religious and non-religious culture appallingly try to silence when they want to give critical say about what they believed and experienced when religious. Or they are minorities who were always atheists and so learn a ton about religion because of religious privilege that makes it impossible not to know how religious people think.

We who actually write for people outside the ivory tower are not the elitists. We take seriously that atheism is not an exclusive club for PhDs who can be initiated into the secrets of how things really work but which the ordinary person can’t handle. Atheism is for everyone.

So, what does all this have to do with feminism? I read too many people who think that because there are some excesses in feminist social media we should spend all our time talking about how terrible the excesses are. Like, of course, the feminist message that women are equal to men is so obvious. We don’t need to talk about that, unpack it, or apply it rigorously to every area of life. Let’s not get “extreme” here. No, let’s focus on the serious problem of mean feminists.

And, yes! There are mean feminists, just like there are mean atheists. This isn’t a myth! But just as I feel about atheism, so I feel similarly about feminism. The political and social injustices done to women worldwide and in each of our backyards are serious and staggering. And everyone “just knowing” that “men and women are of course supposed to be equal” doesn’t automatically change that. Not when expressions of the same old, well-debunked, prejudices that supported women’s explicit subordination are treated by so many people like just “unpleasant truths” or fluffed off as “not what people really mean to say”.

No, the more I read people try to answer why feminists are just going to extremes on this or that issue, the more I see how profound the ignorance really is about what equality really means. And this shouldn’t be surprising. We’re a species where everyone assumes he’s an expert in tons of things that are just “common sense”. And morality is treated like so obvious a matter that we don’t even bother teaching rigorous moral philosophy until college (and for many students, not even then!) or engaging in any kinds of practices of personal moral formation if we’re not religious. I mean it’s only morality. How hard a subject can it be? Here: “Don’t kill people.” Was that so hard? How hard a subject can equality be. Here: “Everyone’s equal.” Was that so hard?

Moral thinking is actually really hard. Rigorous thinking is required. An enormous amount of psychological and social prejudice has to be overcome. A fine sense for moral distinctions has to be developed. A rich and ongoing tradition of philosophy and science can be plumbed to help.

And, in my experience, feminists, by paying so much attention to what they’re not supposed to, yield a staggering number of insights into morality that, no, are not just common sense. And people who wave them all away by saying “But that person didn’t mean to be sexist so you’re a horrible reputation ruiner for even implying such a thing!” are counterproductive to us having vital moral conversations. Yes, just saying something sexist doesn’t make you a monstrous ogre of the species Sexist. You are not identical with your every mistaken thought or deed. But you and I both do and say some sexist things. If you never see that in yourself because you’re so inordinately focused on how The Deep Truth of Your Character Is Not Sexism, then you’re not being personally scrupulous enough. I’m not calling for “political correctness” here if by that you mean “being insincere”. I am talking about conscientiousness. That means accepting the unpleasant truth that as onerous as it feels to really be moral and have to rein yourself in regularly, that’s actually a good thing with good effects for yourself and the larger world if you habituate to it.

And what matters most to me is full empowerment of as many people as possible to thrive in all their abilities as happily as possible. And I see that all these critics of feminism who think that their egalitarian is just fine with common sense and needs to incorporate no insights from feminists to scrupulously take it to the next level as people who simply overestimate their abilities.

I have read more feminist articles that made me angry and which sounded upside down and backwards than I can count. And an astonishing number of them over time made me realize that I was nonetheless wrong and they were right. I still routinely read feminist articles that make me think, “I hate every word of this but I can’t find the philosophical or empirical mistake.” I will routinely see a controversy erupt, have a knee jerk response that the feminists are obviously full of shit, read the debate and wind up writing an article supporting the feminists because they simply won me over.

You know how that makes me feel about feminism? It makes me feel great. I want to read some more even though I know I’ll probably hate it and struggle with it for a while. I like reading feminists because I like having my biases unsettled. I like being forced to uncomfortable places morally and intellectually. And even when I read an abusive feminist who I wish would be more civil, I still bother to focus on what’s in there that I might learn from.

I can think of no single group of writers on the internet who change my opinions more often than the feminists.

Does that mean I agree with everything? Of course not. Like everyone else on the internet, feminists sometimes make bad arguments or take their positions too far. Sometimes, after wrestling long and hard, I still think they’re wrong. But when I read feminists I have learned not to immediately leap up and say, “This extreme is the worst thing in the world! They’re a bunch of radical fascists!” Instead, I keep reading. I read the whole discourse. I form my own position I think strikes the balance, and I write about it, hoping it will help.

So, just as with atheists, I’ll make my arguments that we should all engage civilly. But if I believe that the preponderance of error is on the side of the anti-feminists and if I believe (as I most certainly do) that the preponderance of unfair abuse is meted out to feminists and to women generally rather than by feminists, then, no, my emphasis will not be on how awful feminists are. I’m not going to spend all my posts attacking atheists or feminists. They’re basically right and, if both were listened to, instead of so prejudicially dismissed, we would move in the direction of a fairer, more rational world of more empowered people.

Finally, the extremes of hypocrisy of anti-feminists are so bad that most of the time they push me further into the feminist camp. The attempts to use the worst instances of feminist rhetoric as grounds to dismiss all the good in feminism are patently unconscientious to me. The reflexive attempt to scrutinize how questionable things might possibly be read as not sexist rather than constructively to figure out how to make them less sexist in the future is a tell-tale of bias to me. The double standard in which feminists, atheists, and minorities generally have special reputations as especially angry just for engaging in the same kinds of uncivil discourse as everyone else makes me suspicious. The discounting by the privileged of the rational reasons that being disempowered and maligned makes these groups justifiably so angry is a serious problem.

But most of all, the key point of all of this, is that if you really believe women’s equality is a central moral and political issue, then you should be doing your own part to actively encourage these things before taking the specks out of the worst feminists’ eyes. You don’t like the way they write? Great. Write your own way. You don’t think they’re civil enough? Good, you make your points more civilly.

But at the end of the day you have to decide. What is a greater menace to the world? Mean atheists? Or irrationalism in belief and practice? Mean feminists? Or language, practices, institutions, and behaviors that disempower girls and women? What deserves the bulk of your energies to combat?

Your answer, to me, will not come from your explicit statements. It will be in the proportions of your choices about what to argue about and what to emphasize when arguing.

Your Thoughts?

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